CHARLOTTE -- That's a wrap for the 2020 regular season, as the Saints close out their year going 12-4 after beating up on the Panthers. They become the first team in the NFC South to sweep the division in a game where they were missing all of their running backs and running backs coach. After the Packers beat the Bears in Chicago, the Saints finish as the No. 2 seed in the NFC and will play on wild card weekend.
New Orleans won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. Defensively, the Saints started great, forcing a three-and-out on the opening drive. Trey Hendrickson officially made his return felt by sacking Teddy Bridgewater for a loss of 10 yards to force a Panthers punt. Tommylee Lewis had a nice punt return to help New Orleans out with good field position. It wouldn't take long for the Saints to get into the end zone, as Drew Brees hit Jared Cook for an 18-yard pass for the score. Tony Jones Jr. got the start at running back in his first career game. The Saints moved the ball well on their 8-play, 42-yard drive, which included going for it on a 4th-and-1 that was converted via a Taysom Hill keeper.
The Panthers would punt again after a three-and-out that took a little longer due to an early fumble, timeout from a late substitution, and benefitting from a Sheldon Rankins neutral zone infraction penalty. Carolina's defense would respond with a stop of their own, forcing a Saints three-and-out to get the ball back with 5:50 in the opening quarter. The drive ended after Brees was strip-sacked by Efe Obada, but thankfully a heads up play by Erik McCoy helped get the ball out of bounds.
Carolina would get into the end zone after going on a 7-play, 64-yard that took 4:10 off the clock to tie things up with 1:40 left in the first quarter. They benefitted from a Grant Haley defensive pass interference call, while Bridgewater connected with Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore for big plays on the drive. New Orleans would follow that up with another three-and-out, with the drive ending on a Brees sack.
Bridgewater would once again help his offense drive down the field, doing just enough and then some to help extend their series. They once again went for it on a 4th Down play and converted, and ex-Saints draftee Tommy Stevens do his Taysom Hill impression on one play. Janoris Jenkins dropped a pick-six early on the drive, but Malcolm Jenkins would make an excellent play in the end zone to negate points for the Panthers, returning the interception for 48 yards to give the Saints new life.
It paid off, as New Orleans would put together a 5-play, 54-yard drive of their own that resulted in Brees' second touchdown pass of the day, this time to Emmanuel Sanders from 8 yards out. Ty Montgomery had a big 37-yard run on a toss play facing 3rd-and-3 that helped setup the score.
The next Panthers possession was promising, as they'd piece together a 10-play, 54-yard drive that looked to end in some points. Once again, the Saints defense shut the door, coming up big on a 4th-and-1 from the Panthers' 21-yard line. Before that, Carolina got a big 33-yard hookup from Bridgewater to Curtis Samuel to start the drive after a botched exchange on their first play of the series. Malcom Brown came up huge on the last play to help New Orleans get the ball back on downs.
The Saints would go to work in their four-minute offense, going 63 yards in 10 plays. They'd threaten before halftime, but would have to settle for a 33-yard Wil Lutz field goal after Brees couldn't hookup with Cook in the end zone. Brees started the drive going 7-of-7 for 53 yards, but then missed twice. New Orleans would extend their lead to 16-7, and get the ball back to start the second half.
The first play of the third quarter nearly gave the ball to the Panthers after Brees threw into double coverage. However, the next play saw him hookup with Marquez Callaway for a 27-yard gain on a great throw and catch. Taysom Hill would follow that up with a couple of good runs, but the drive would stall out facing a 3rd-and-5 from the Panthers' 29-yard line. New Orleans would still cash in, as Lutz hit a 48-yard field goal to put the Saints up 19-7.
Once again, Carolina would prove to be troublesome offensively, but the bend, don't break model of the Saints defense rose to the occasion. Bridgewater had a big hookup to D.J. Moore for a 44-yard gain, but on the very next play he'd be intercepted in the end zone by Grant Haley, who read the play the whole way.
Unfortunately, the Saints couldn't get anything done with their turnover and punted the ball back to the Panthers after having it for several plays. Brees tried Sanders on a 3rd-and-5 play, but he could not secure the catch. P.J. Walker came in for Bridgewater, and the Saints would get the ball back after a tipped pass intended for Samuel was picked off by Marshon Lattimore. He returned it to the Panthers' 24-yard line. It'd take New Orleans just three plays to get into the end zone, with back-to-back plays from Taysom Hill to finish the drive, including a 6-yard keeper after a 15-yard play on the quarterback power. It was 26-7 Saints with 4:56 left in Q3.
New Orleans would force a three-and-out on Walker and the Panthers on their ensuing possession, and then proceed to go on a 8-play, 57-yard drive that was capped off by a Brees to Austin Carr 11-yard score. On the drive, Emmanuel Sanders picked up his 60th catch of the season to net him a nice $500,000 bonus. Montgomery also had a big 14-yard to open the drive, and then a 12-yard run before the Carr touchdown that put the Saints up 33-7 with 14:55 left in the game.
After stopping the Panthers again, New Orleans would trot out their starters. Taysom Hill and Terron Armstead ended up getting hurt on the same play, with the bigger concern being Hill, who left the field after being in the medical tent for an extended amount of time. Armstead returned after just one play. The drive looked horrid, and the Saints would punt the ball back to Carolina.
The Saints would get the ball back after another interception while the Panthers were driving down the field, another end zone pick, this time by P.J. Williams. The Saints put in Jameis Winston finally, but it ended in a three-and-out. They got the ball right back after Walker threw a pick to Ken Crawley. The Saints would just run the clock out and take home a 33-7 victory.
New Orleans will play on Wild Card weekend, hosting the Chicago Bears.